Humour me: Comedy through the ages


Funny is a relative term. Try explaining the merit of a film like Superbad to your parents, or, even better, your grandparents. Youll most certainly run into some kind of argument. Either they cant relate to the films content or they just dont see the comedic value of a kid named McLovin. Either way, the current state of comedy, in both television and cinema, has become so saturated and diversified that finding a universal, funny-to-all, show or film is nearly impossible. 

Scene from Pineapple Express featuring (from left to right) Seth Rogen, Danny McBride, and James Franco (photo/
Scene from Pineapple Express featuring (from left to right) Seth Rogen, Danny McBride, and James Franco (photo/

In the past two decades, there has been a surge in the status of comedians. Some of the most famous comedians of this period command Hollywood salaries of twenty million dollars or more, in comparison to revolutionary comics like Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, and George Carlin, who, at many points during their respective careers, struggled to even earn a comfortable income. The demand for comedy is high, but what is comedy today?

Essentially, there are three schools of current comedic thought.

First is the classic slapstick comedy that is perhaps the most universally understood. This is where a pie in the face or a football to the groin draws laughs through the exaggeration of violent nonsensical action. In the past, this was the specialty of Charlie Chaplin and The Three Stooges, but more recently this form has been taken up by Hollywood heavyweights like Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell. The comedic sub-genre is attractive to those who are not interested in narrative subtleties but enjoy straightforward, obvious comedy.

The second, the situational comedy, or sitcom, is both prominent and dwindling. Its as if everything that could be done in a sitcom has inevitably been done. While the standard sitcom offers little in the way of creativity, it has become a bankable comedic outlet.

The birth of the sitcom arose in the 50s and continued to gain popularity throughout the following decades. Television shows like I Love Lucy, M.A.S.H., and Seinfeld gained huge followings, and were arguably more inventive, but were still geared towards broad audiences. The wide reaching comedy is the mainstay of millions, but despised by just as many.

And finally, a new form of comedy has become a force to reckon with within the past four years. Sparked by the genius mind of writer/director/producer Judd Apatow (Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), the new genre is a satireladen, politically-savvy, gross-outpot- smoking comedy that has produced some of the most successful comedies in recent memory.

There’s something about Apatows style that resonates in the modern comedic landscape. Its fresh, relevant, and not averse to going one step too far in its humour. Its this comedic school that launched the careers of Steve Carell and Seth Rogen, and based on its relatively recent surge in popularity, it shows no sign of stopping. In the following months, Apatow and his clan will be releasing a bevy of new films that guarantee to challenge comedic norms.

So what is funny? Is it a pie in the face, a laugh track, or a couple of drunken cops shooting stop signs with an underage teenager? Its debatable. Comedy is dialectical. It is constantly evolving, but each sub-genre shares many of the same principles with one another in order to negotiate its very existence.

Its normal to not see eye-to-eye with someone about comedy, especially when dealing with a form of generational gap. The late _orthrop Frye once wrote that comedy was divided into two factions: a Society of the Youth and a Society of the Old . Frye perceived this dichotomy to be at the root of all comedy.

So when you argue with your parents about which cast of Saturday _ight Live was better, 75 or 95, just take a moment and laugh.

Thats what comedy is all about.